Chicago Cubs

Anthony Rizzo’s reality check for anyone doubting Cubs now

Anthony Rizzo’s reality check for anyone doubting Cubs now

Watch a team every day and the flaws come into sharper focus and obscure the strengths. Every fan base has issues with the lineup construction and the bullpen decisions and all beat writers get tired of listening to the manager’s talking points. But sometimes you have to take the 30,000-foot view.

Anthony Rizzo did that on Tuesday afternoon, sending a message through the reporters crowded around his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. The Cubs first baseman made the point that getting swept by the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend didn’t really change the big picture for the defending World Series champs. 

“We’re in first place,” Rizzo said. “Every single person standing here right now is overlooking that. I think where we’re at right now is an unbelievable position that we can’t take for granted.”

Just ask the New York Mets, a broken-down team that no longer resembles the group of players who celebrated here after sweeping the Cubs out of the 2015 National League Championship Series. 

Just look at the injured Mets out for the season – Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, David Wright, Michael Conforto, Wilmer Flores, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler – and it became a good time to play this card before an 8-3 win that held off the St. Louis Cardinals (2 games out) and Brewers (2.5 games back) for another night.  

“I think everyone needs to start rallying around us even more now,” Rizzo said, “instead of maybe panicking a little bit, because this is the time where we’re going to get hot these next three weeks and raise that banner again next year, hopefully.”

Not sure if Rizzo had a specific tweet, headline or talk show in mind – or what someone from his entourage might have heard – but the Cubs have spent each of the last 48 days atop the NL Central and the overall theme of the coverage has been saying this franchise could become a dynasty and waiting for this team to finally take control of a weak division.  

Maybe Rizzo just senses the cynicism as someone who planted roots in Chicago and remains the only player left from the 97-loss team in 2012, or Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration.

It’s also the middle of September and manager Joe Maddon is still tinkering with his lineup, waiting to see a more mature approach from certain hitters, giving daily medical updates and talking about the fatigue from playing into early November last year.  

“It’s there,” Maddon said. “To deny that would be disingenuous on my part. It is true and I think our guys have done a great job – not a good job – during the course of this season. Primarily because I’ve not heard anybody make excuses. I know they’ve been tired and I’ve tried to rest them (and) I can tell it’s mental fatigue as much as it is physical fatigue. 

“For the hardcore hardliners that don’t want to hear that, that’s fine. But it’s true. It is part of the human element. It’s part of what we do. (So) right now, you need to trust your guys more than anything. It’s not time to experiment or try new methods or whatever. Let your guys play and trust them. These are great athletes. It’s a tightly knit group. 

“It’s great to be in this position. Now we got to figure out how to do it.”

The Cubs can be a boom-or-bust offense and this lineup is far easier to navigate than last year’s version. Jake Arrieta will miss this weekend’s showdown against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field as he recovers from a strained right hamstring and the Cubs don’t really know when their Cy Young Award winner will be ready to rejoin the rotation. The bullpen is in flux – because bullpens are always in flux – but All-Star closer Wade Davis (29-for-29 in save chances) is as good as it gets.

In the end, it won’t matter how the Cubs got into the playoffs – as long as they get there.

“The guys in the clubhouse understand it,” Rizzo said. “We’ve dealt with the outside noise. It’s about being professional and handling it the right way. But I told them: Take the positives out of everything to this point – where we are coming from after the greatest championship in sports history – and in the position to win the division again.”

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”